Tag Archives: Belgrade Theatre Coventry

Terribly Funny

HORRIBLE HISTORIES: Terrible Tudors

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 23rd October, 2019

 

Based on the popular series of children’s non-fiction books by the extremely popular and prolific Terry Deary, this show by the Birmingham Stage Company is playing in tandem with Awful Egyptians, which I imagine is just as much fun.

A cast of three, led by Doctor Dee (played in this performance by director Neal Foster) take us through the reign of the Tudors, from the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth Field through to the succession of James I after the demise of Elizabeth.  Along the way, there are interludes examining other aspects of Tudor society, like the cruel punishments meted out to criminals (some hilarious practical effects here) and the disgusting elements of medical practice.

Foster is a delight, whether its in one of his many characters (including Henry VIII) or when he’s addressing the audience with a good old-fashioned ‘Shut your face!’.  He is supported by a more-than-able pair, Dross (Lisa Allen) and Drab (Izaak Cainer) who take on all the other roles, as well as being enjoyable characters in their own right.

The facts come as thick and as fast as the jokes.  The declamatory style of storytelling is leavened by silly voices and camp gestures, and the action is augmented by cartoony sound effects (thanks to Nick Sagar) and animated projections on the screen that forms the backdrop.  The performance style owes much to Monty Python and pantomime, and the script has a touch of the Carry-Ons, without the bawdiness.  There are plenty of mentions of poo and grisly deaths to keep the kids fascinated, while the adults will find much to enjoy in the execution (heh) of the comic business by these three talented players.

The second half has the added ingredient of 3D effects to make you flinch and gasp, as the Spanish Armada is blown to splinters and blood from the botched execution of Mary Queen of Scots splatters across the screen.  There are catchy songs, including one to help you remember the fates of Henry VIII’s wives, and even Will. I. Am. Shakespeare crops up with a version of I Gotta Feeling.  The anachronisms make the history accessible and keep the laughs coming.

And then, as the reign and life of Elizabeth come to an end, she recaps the dynasty, in a powerful moment from Lisa Allen, bringing depth and gravitas to the piece – but don’t worry, there’s another catchy song to round things off.

Thoroughly enjoyable, informative and hilarious, this Horrible History makes for Terrific Theatre.

1 Terrible Tudors by Birmingham Stage Company. Photo by Mark Douet

Terrible Tudors: Lisa Allen and Izaak Cainer are armed and dangerous (Photo: Mark Douet)

 


Body Politic

FRANKENSTEIN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 3rd October, 2019

 

Rona Munro’s new stage adaptation of the novel that gave birth to the genre of science fiction puts its author, Mary Shelley at the centre of the action.  Tightly wound, spirited and full of youthful vigour, Mary is bursting with creativity as, before our very eyes, she rights the book that will render her immortal.   She narrates, breaks the fourth wall, and even collaborates with her characters as she starts and stops the story – we, of course, know how it will turn out, but it’s an effective and stylish way to present events we have seen portrayed time and time again.

As Mary, Eilidh Loan is a dynamic stage presence, hugely entertaining, wry and knowing, transmitting Mary’s passion to get her story written.  Her characters, seemingly under her control, are played by a strong ensemble: Ben Castle-Gibb is excellent as the driven Victor Frankenstein, showing his descent into obsession and insanity with great power; Thierry Mabonga is strong in three different roles, the salty Captain Walton, young William Frankenstein, and Victor’s best mate Henry; Greg Powrie brings authority to his roles as Victor’s father, and Waldman the doctor who recruits Victor as his assistant.  Natali McCleary brings vulnerability and strength to Elizabeth, but it is Michael Moreland as the ‘Monster’ who captivates our attention, from the jerky movements that bring him to life, to his augmented voice.

Becky Minto’s wintry set is striking and functional, giving two levels and a range of possibilities; her costume designs are elegantly tailored to denote the period.  Simon Slater’s discordant music and eerie sound design add to the tension, while Grant Anderson’s lighting bathes the action in cold beauty.  Director Patricia Benecke makes sparing use of shadowplay and mist for atmosphere and effect, and on the whole, this is a gripping and inventive retelling.  Oddly though, very little sympathy is elicited for the Monster – the script allows him no opportunity to show his potential for goodness. We only see him as a killer, an angry reject of society, and that’s a shame.  It’s like he was built with a bit missing.

This production is a fresh take on the well-worn tale, in which Mary Shelley has a message for us today, for our government in particular, above and beyond the usual don’t-dabble-with-nature theme.  She says, “If you neglect those you are supposed to care for, the weak, the poor, their destruction will be your shame.”  The play goes to some length to bring out Shelley’s revolutionary politics.  Right on!

Michael Moreland (Creature) and Ben Castle-Gibb (Frankenstein) - credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan-033

Daddy issues: the Monster (Michael Moreland) and Victor (Ben Castle-Gibb) Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

 


Disappearing Act

THE LADY VANISHES

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 24th September, 2019

 

Based on the Alfred Hitchcock film of 1938, this brand-new production from the Classic Thriller Theatre Company, begins in Austria during the Nazi occupation.  Imagine, if you can, a world in which fascism is on the rise… Oh, wait.  The action begins with a train being delayed – Imagine if you can, the trains not running on time – Oh, never mind!  These modern parallels aside, this is an entertaining period piece, old-fashioned in both form and content.

Gwen Taylor leads the cast as the titular disappearing woman, the tweedy Miss Froy.  It’s not until she does her disappearing act, that the play picks up momentum.  Up until then, it’s been character after character charging around, a little too much exposition, perhaps.  Taylor’s Froy is spot on for dotty old English biddy, harmless and friendly; she comes to the aid of young Iris, who is, rather contrivedly, bashed on the head at the station.  Scarlett Archer does all the right things as the plucky damsel, distressed over the old biddy’s disappearance, while everyone around her denies Miss Froy even existed.  It’s an intriguing mystery and keeps us interested.  Director Roy Marsden does a bang-up job of bringing matters to a head by the end of the first act, with Iris’s desperation rising to a crescendo amid the consternation of everyone else.

The rest of the company includes some stalwarts of this kind of thing: the mighty Denis Lill is paired up with Ben Nealon as a pair of cricket-obsessed duffers who provide much of the show’s comedic moments; Mark Wynter combines silver foxiness with arrogance as an adulterous barrister, while Rosie Thomson is suitably despairing as his embittered mistress.  There is a cold, chilling turn from Andrew Lancel as dodgy Doctor Hartz, while Joe Reisig makes for an imposing presence as a Nazi official striding around as if he owns the train.  Providing support for Iris is the funny, handsome and charming Max (played by the funny, handsome and charming Nicholas Audley).

The transmutable set, designed by Morgan Large, serves as both station and train, including compartments, is impressive and, coupled with lighting effects from Charlie Morgan Jones, sound effects by Dan Samson, and subtle bobbing on the spot by the cast, the sensation of being on a train is superbly evoked.  Antony Lampard’s adaptation of the screenplay has a bit too much of the characters describing what they can see happening through the windows of the train but, that aside, the story builds to a climactic and thrilling gunfight and reaches a pleasingly romantic resolution.

Solid and dependable fare, the play delivers what you expect, with high quality production values and a skilled and effective cast.  Reliably gripping, this is an enjoyable night at the theatre.

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Scarlett Archer and Nicholas Audsley are not convinced by the delay-repay scheme

 


Rock Bottom

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 18th June, 2019

 

Oddsocks return, not only to Coventry, but also to Athens, the fictional Athens of Shakespeare’s romcom, for this new production that marks thirty years in the business.  Director Andy Barrow never fails to come up with new ideas to reinterpret and restage the Bard, with his pared-down cast and signature Oddsocks humour.  A stroke of genius is to have the ‘Mechanicals’ as builders working at Theseus’s palace: and so the set is initially draped in their dustsheets before ‘transforming’ into the forest.  Barrow himself appears as Bottom the Builder (yes, he can!) complete with beer belly and builder’s bottom.  We laugh straight away but even dressed like this, Barrow can wring nuances from his characterisation.  His Egeus is a blustering gammon, and his Oberon is a towering faun, with cloven hooves and curling horns.

Most of the humour, most of the playing, is done with broad strokes, and Barrow’s cast prove masters (and mistresses) of the in-house style.   Alex Wadham’s cocky Demetrius and desperately melodramatic Thisbe; Asha Cornelia-Cluer’s upper-class twit of a Hippolyta, her plucky Helena and graceful Titania; Peter Hoggart’s sheepish Lion – (Hoggart brings slapstick, physical comedy to his Lysander); and Christopher Smart’s easy-going Theseus and officious Peter Quince… Alice Merivale’s feisty Hermia and her energetic Scouse Puck… The entire ensemble works tirelessly to populate the scenes, adlibbing when they need to but also delivering Shakespeare’s verse with expression and conviction.  This is Shakespeare at its most accessible – the inclusion of popular songs, played live by this versatile cast, adds to the fun and to the story.  I’ve seen many a jukebox musical where the song choices don’t work anywhere near as well.  Hermia and Lysander give a rendition of The Corrs’s Runaway, Helena sings You Can’t Hurry Love, Bottom treats us to Passenger’s Scare Away The Dark (I suspect Andy Barrow would be a rock star in another life)… The whole thing ends with Oberon and the Fairies Dancing in the Moonlight.  And it’s a blast.

Of course, the play-within-a-play is achingly funny, with the added bonus of a member of the audience selected to portray the Wall, for a spot of good-natured victimisation.  Where some productions attempt to make us feel with Thisbe’s mock-plaintive words, Barrow goes all-out for big laughs.  And gets them.

A joyous version, both faithful and subversive, that shows Oddsocks are still at the top of their game after all this time.  Here’s to the next thirty years!

A Midsummer Nights Dream

It Takes Two: Oberon (Andy Barrow) and Titania (Asha Cornelia Cluer)


Worth a Gander

HONK!

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th June. 2019

 

This musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling gives us the bird’s-eye view of life in a duck yard.  When the largest of four eggs hatches to duck-parents Drake (Chris Thomson) and Ida (Ellie Nunn), the poor soul to emerge from it faces mockery and rejection for being different.  “Ugly” sets off, inadvertently, on a journey until his true identity is revealed.  The message is simple and clear, and Anthony Drewe’s script is riddled with puns and animal-based idioms, ranging from corny to witty.  Aimed at a family audience, Drewe also includes the occasional risqué line to keep the grown-ups engaged.

Gregor Duncan is Ugly, a plucky and sympathetic figure, but it is Ellie Nunn as his mother who provides the emotional heart of the show.  Nunn is in great form – the songs are delivered with conviction and power.  In fact, the cast, whose choral singing is just lovely, do their utmost to sell the songs.  Some of George Stiles’s tunes are stronger and catchier than others but all of them are enriched by Anthony Drewe’s sophisticated lyrics.

It’s a small but hard-working cast.  Notable moments come from Peter Noden as a Black Country bullfrog and Emma Barclay’s haughty mandarin duck.  A highlight for me is a tango between two cats (Danni Payne and James Dangerfield).  Dangerfield in particular impresses with his villainous characterisation as the Cat, managing to be sinister and funny at the same time, using movement and physicality to enhance the role.  He also plays a mean violin, augmenting the band at the side of the stage, led by musical director Oli Rew.

It’s all well and good, amusing stuff, but I question some of the design choices.  The bird characters are totally anthropomorphised, with only orange stockings to signify their duck legs.  The Cat has ears poking through his hat.  But the three ducklings are puppets, with beaks, and umbrellas for bodies.  It’s a neat idea but seems to be at odds with everything else.  Similarly, the Bullfrog sports a spotted hoodie, but his Frog Chorus are goggle-eyed and green, and presented in a highly inventive way.  I think the production needs to decide which way it’s going to jump to give it a more coherent style.  I would have put beaks on the leads or flippers for their feet.  Or I would have done the puppets differently.  But that’s me.

There is much to admire and enjoy here.  Director Andy Room is not short of ideas: particularly effective is the swimming lesson that takes place on a couple of swivel chairs, and it’s great to hear a cast that can sing so well, with humour and emotion, elevating the rather slight tale into a piece that can be charming and delightful, if a little uneven.

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James Dangerfield as the Cat (in the hat) and Gregor Duncan as Ugly (Photo: Scott Rylander)

 

 

 

 

 


Fare Play

APPROACHING EMPTY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 20th March, 2019

 

Ishy Din’s new play is set in a small taxi firm in the North East, run by brothers Raf and Mansha.  The death of Thatcher has just been announced but, as we see from the way the action pans out, her legacy did not die with her.  Hard-nosed businessman Raf, obviously ailing from something, offers to let his brother buy him out.  Mansha seizes what seems to be a great opportunity, finding financial support to seal the deal from son-in-law Sully, and cab-driver Sameena.  The trio have big plans for the business except it quickly transpires they have been sold a pig in a poke…

It’s a conventional piece in terms of structure and presentation, but what sets it apart is how it brings the British-Asian experience to the fore.  Din’s writing is well-observed, naturalistic yet emotionally charged, and the characters are imbued with authenticity, thanks to the strong script and the excellent cast.

Kammy Darweish is superb as the downtrodden but optimistic Mansha, a man sold a dream that turns out to be a dud.  He could have wandered in from an Arthur Miller (All My Cabbies, perhaps, or Death Of A Taxi Operator) while Nicholas Khan is in perfect contrast as the smartly clad, tough-talking Raj.  Rina Fatania’s embattled and determined Sameena, working hard to get her kids back, is marvellous: we see how the attractiveness of the dream, the enticement of greed, can offer hope, and how devastating an effect it can have.  Nicholas Prasad is excellent as son-in-law Sully in a nuanced and credible portrayal, and there are powerful moments from Karan Gill as Shazad, Raf’s son, endangered by his father’s business practices.  Maanuv Thiara brings a touch of dark comedy and plenty of menace as Sameena’s thug brother, the true face of Thatcher’s legacy.

Director Pooja Ghal uses the close confines of Rosa Maggiore’s set to add to the tension.  The characters have little room for manoeuvre figuratively and literally, and when violence erupts it is all the more effective.

As TV commentary from Thatcher’s funeral drones on in the background, the play speaks to us today.  You can’t put money before people, is what it boils down to.  Making a living is important but making a killing makes you a c*nt.

A thoroughly absorbing drama, powerfully presented.  I’m tempted to say Ishy Din is the Asian David Mamet (and mean it as a compliment) but that would be a disservice to Din’s own distinctive voice.

Approaching Empty_Production_HelenMurray-82 (1)

Nicholas Prasad, Rina Fatania and Kammy Darweish (Photo: Helen Murray)

 

 


Funny Money

BILLIONAIRE BOY The Musical 

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 20th February, 2019

 

The children’s books of David Walliams have filled the gap left by Roald Dahl.  They are child-centred stories, with outlandish events and grotesque characters – usually the adults, save for one or two sympathetically presented ones.  Billionaire Boy the Musical  fits this mould exactly, telling the story of young Joe Spud, son of toilet-paper innovator Len, one of the richest men in the world.  For all his riches, Joe is unhappy.  He wants friends and so opts to go to the local comprehensive to make some.  It’s not long, of course, before his money gets in the way.

As Joe, Ryan Heenan is an appealing figure, boyish and with a superb singing voice that suits the rock and pop sensibilities of the score.  The songs (by Miranda Cooper and Nick Coler, with lyrics by Jon Brittain) are without exception catchy, with witty lyrics and in a range of styles.  Dean Nolan is great as the crass nouveau riche Len but seems to have the most fun as a disgusting dinner lady (imagine Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull let loose in a school kitchen!) Bringing out Len’s paternal side is the mighty Sophia Nomvete as Gwen, the Mum of Joe’s new friend Bob.  Nomvete has remarkable presence, whether she’s narrating, playing Gwen, or a more exaggerated character like the school teacher.

Lem Knights is great fun as Bob, bringing physical humour and also sensitivity to the role, while Eleanor Kane’s Lauren is cute and energetic without being too girly.  Jared Leathwood and Natalie Morgan gurn and growl as school bullies, the Grubbs. (Cast members also play musical instruments, augmenting the upstage band)

Special mention to Avita Jay, doubling as Len’s gold-digging model girlfriend Sapphire Stone and as shopkeeper Raj (a staple of Walliams’s books) working the audience and doing a lot of the frame-breaking.  This is a show that establishes a rapport with the audience without going full-on panto.  We are included in everything and somehow the overt theatricality of the piece draws us in rather than alienating us in a Brechtian fashion.

It’s a funny and engaging production.  Director Luke Sheppard keeps everything lively so when the moments of pathos come, they are all the more touching.  There’s a wealth of talent at work here in a show rich with comedy, infectious tunes and a moral, which is perhaps obvious but is not hammered home.

Working with Nuffield Southampton Theatres, the Belgrade has struck it rich with this vibrant new musical.  I loved every minute.

Ryan Heenan & Lem Knights as Joe & Bob in Billionaire Boy the Musical - credit Manuel Harlan

Golden boys Ryan Heenan as Joe and Lem Knights as Bob (Photo: Manuel Harlan)